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The P R I S M   S E R I E S : W H I T E (story nine of nine)

Author: Dazzle (RhinestoneDazzle@aol.com)
Rating: R
Archive: Wherever you want
Spoilers: Through the ATS third-season episode "Tomorrow"
Warnings: None
Summary: Angel and Cordelia finally realize where the paths of the last several months have led them. Ninth and last in the Prism Series, which follows Cordy and Angel's developing feelings throughout the previous year.
Thanks: To Inamorata for the great beta-read and encouragement
The symbolism of white: reverence, humility, innocence, birth, creation, marriage, winter, good. When all the colors of light are combined, the result is white light.

*****

As I palm the car keys and the motor dies down, I realize that I'm surrounded by a silence that's too rare in L.A. Not pure silence, of course; just the stillness of separation from automobiles and radios and human voices. I can still hear so much, but it's all gentler. More natural. The cry of gulls, the rustle of the breeze through tall beach grasses, and above all the muted rush of the ocean.

As though I were sleepwalking -- dreamwalking -- I get out of the car, breathe in deeply like a living man, and smell the cool sea air. I walk to the promontory and look at the ocean; snowy wavecaps flutter toward the shore, splash, rush away again. My foot brushes against something, and I glance down; it's a conch shell, too far from the water and too lustrous and opalescent to be a genuine find. This is a souvenir, bought and dropped and forgotten.

The shell is smooth in my hand as I pick it up. I remember, as a child, believing that you could hear the ocean if you held a shell to your ear. But it's no more than the echo of a heartbeat and blood flow, amplified and captured in the whorls. For one instant, though, I give into the temptation to try it; tonight, it seems like anything could happen. I hold the shell to my own ear, and as I should have expected -- I hear nothing. I don't care. Right now, all I'm doing is trying to listen to the remembered words in my mind.

"Depends on how you feel," she said. About what, I asked. "About me." How did her voice sound when she said that? How was it? She was -- direct, but not certain. Her tone went up just a little when she said "me" -- didn't it? -- making it almost a question, but not demanding an answer right away. Simple, sweet -- but teasing me, just the littlest bit. She's not sure how I feel, but she at least guesses. I can feel myself smiling -- half in anticipation, half in pure, stunned disbelief.

Just when I thought I'd lost her -- before we ever even had a chance -- it looks like this might just happen after all.

Me and Cordy. Angel and Cordelia. Please, let this be real. Please, let her feel what I think she feels, say what I hope she's going to say.

Please, don't let me screw this up.

*****

Okay, explain this to me: If I'm driving toward a battle with a slime demon, where I am guaranteed to get covered in ookiness, the highways are clear and I get there in record time. If I'm headed to the DMV to come up with a cover story to explain the lost license that's lying on the ground in another dimension, I can make it in about five minutes so I can sit in the office and wait all day.

But the second I'm trying to make a romantic rendezvous with my best friend, quite-possibly-about-to-be-boyfriend, every single person in Southern California decides to pull out on the highway and drive four miles an hour. How do they know? And why do they do it?

I drum my hands on the steering wheel in impatience, but even as I feel the wheel against my palms, I start to laugh.

I'm in love with Angel. It sounds like some phrase from another language, and at the same time, I know it's true. I mean, I KNOW it, down in my bones, in my blood. I feel like one of those women in the comic-strip panels; there oughta be a thought balloon over my head that says, "How could I have been so blind?"

All those times we've sat up late, talking, sitting side-by-side. The handful of nights we slept in the same bed, not touching, but with our bodies curved near one another all the same. The way we can read each other's minds half the time, totally surprise each other the rest of the time. That's the way lovers are together. God, that's how they are together if they're lucky. And we've had this for so long, and I'm only now catching on?

I gotta tell ya, there's nothing quite like realizing that an entire year of your life can be summed up with the word "Duh."

What am I going to say to Angel? How do I explain it? I mean, do I just blurt out, "Angel, I love you?" What if he doesn't feel the same? I'd DIE. And he would too, except for the part where he's already dead.

But the way he reacted when I asked him to meet me here -- the way his voice sounded -- I think he does feel the same. I think. I hope. If he doesn't realize it, if he's locked up in his own personal denial vault, I swear to God I'll break him out. For one second, I imagine myself as some kind of leotard-clad catburglar, my ear pressed against Angel's chest as I try to crack the code that unlocks him, sets him free.

If he does realize it, though -- if he does feel the same --

All of a sudden, I'm remembering a hundred little moments, and seeing them in a whole new light. The way he freaked after I nearly died and got demonized instead. The way he touched my face when he showed up at my place late at night to talk about Buffy. The way he drew me for my Christmas portrait. I think Angel does realize. I think Angel's known this for a long time.

And he let me run off with Groo? He must have felt -- how am I going to explain --

I start smiling again as I realize I won't have to explain anything. I won't even have to say anything. When I get to him, and we look at each other -- we'll know. Then and there. And before he can say anything about how we shouldn't or curses or gypsies, I am going to grab him and kiss him so long and so well that it says everything in my heart.

And maybe the way he kisses will tell me the same. I remember Angel's mouth -- the slight fullness of his lower lip, the set of his jaw, his strong chin. I can imagine how his face will fit with mine, the angle we'll need. I realize I've unconsciously tilted my face up a little; he's taller than I am. The details are all so real to me, like we'd kissed a hundred times before.

Oh, God, I'm so ready to see him, to tell him. And the cars are just going slower to spite me.

Wait a second.

The cars really ARE going slower --

*****

Goddamned gypsies. Cordelia's not even here yet -- we haven't even kissed for the first time, unless you count being possessed or the time she was trying to get rid of the visions, and I don't -- and I already want her so bad my body hurts. And I'm never gonna have her, not the way I'm dreaming of.

But I can take it if I have to. And Cordelia -- I swear to God, she'll never regret it. I can't have perfect happiness within her -- and just at this moment, imagining being within her, being able to feel her living heat all around me, I know it would rip my soul to shreds -- but there's nothing stopping me from giving her everything I can't take myself. And that's what I intend to do: give her everything she needs, everything she would ever want.

I glance back at the Plymouth, in particular the low, long back seat. I imagine laying her on her back across that seat, slowly sliding her pants down from her waist, lowering my face between her legs. My lips part slightly as I imagine how she'll taste, and I wonder what's she like -- if she's loud, or if she's quiet, or -- oh, God, Cordy, get here already. I want to know. I intend to know.

Am I gonna be frustrated? Yeah. But if that's the price -- if that's all I have to deal with to be in love with Cordelia -- then it's such a cheap price to pay.

There was a time I didn't think so. A few years ago, it seemed like not being able to make love, to fully consummate passion, was this unendurable burden. It stood between me and Buffy like a damned stone wall. All I could think about was what I couldn't give Buffy. And now all I think about is what I can give Cordelia.

For the first time, I realize how much I felt like Buffy was another of my victims -- one more person I was dragging away from the light. I saw the mission we fought for, and I knew my desires took away from that. I thought it was selfish. I thought it was wrong.

I sacrificed my love for Buffy on that altar, and only now do I know that the altar was consecrated to false gods.

Even this last fall, I hurt Buffy for that mission. I told myself that nameless, faceless people I might or might not save mattered more than this one person whose name had meant the world to me, whose face could never fade from my mind. I put abstract need instead of the very real pain of one individual. I'd never do that again. I never will.

I look up at the sky and whisper, "I'm sorry," to a girl I'll probably never see again. I'm not apologizing for loving someone else; I'll never apologize for how I feel about Cordelia, not to Buffy, not to anyone. But I'm apologizing for learning these lessons the hard way, through Buffy's pain and mine.

Now I know that a mission can't ever be any bigger than an individual, can't exist outside of any one moment. If you think a cause matters more than any one person, then you've lost sight of what that cause is supposed to be about.

Earlier this year, I was willing to let Cordelia go, and I told myself it was out of Love, the ideal, the burden. Now I know that I can't do anything but love her, the act, the reality. Noun to verb. Death to life. Lie to truth.

*****

"I'm Angel's Seer." These are the only words that make any sense. The only thing that's made any sense in my life for so long -- years now --

How could I ever pull those words apart? I'm a Seer; that's what Skip is telling me to embrace. But I'm also Angel's, and that's what he's telling me to walk away from. How can this possibly be? Angel's the reason I'm a Seer. He's the reason I'm -- a grown-up, a fighter, a champion. I think he's probably also the reason I'm a good person, or at any rate the good person I've become.

More than that: He's the reason I believe. This last Christmas, when I could feel that growing darkness down deep inside, I never gave up. I almost didn't even let myself get scared. Why? Because I could look down at Angel and his son -- the son who's come back to him, despite the odds -- and I could believe in miracles. I could believe that the Powers would take care of me, keep me by Angel's side to I could see all those Christmases to come.

Angel was the one person in my life I most didn't want to leave. He was the center of my life already -- God, how could I not have seen it then? But I already knew how important he was. How right it was for me to put him first.

And now Skip is telling me to put Angel aside. The Powers brought us together, and now the Powers want to drag us apart? I don't understand. I don't. But the Powers never lie.

All this time, I've seen my mission in terms of one individual. One single person. I never forgot about all the people we needed to help, all those lives we were meant to save; still, Angel was the one I saw doing the saving. My visions, his hands. Two parts of one whole. Inseparable.

But now I have to ask myself if maybe it's bigger than one person -- no, two people. Bigger than us.

*****

The Powers are lying bastards.

Why did it take me so long to figure this out? Me, of all people? For a century, I carried around a curse with a loophole capable of destroying countless lives, starting with those closest to me. Did they ever bother to let me know? If not for my sake, for all those others? Never. The Powers sent Whistler to give me a purpose in life, and Whistler sent me right to a girl I didn't know how to love and wouldn't be able to keep. Then they sent Doyle, to pull me back from the brink with his psychic powers, and they didn't even give him a vision that might have let him save his own life. Then they let Doyle transfer his abilities to Cordelia, even though they might have killed her -- and they came so damn close to killing her --

And all the while, I told myself they were teaching me so much. That I was learning, atoning, growing in the way they wanted me to do. But all I was doing was bowing under that weight. I had to break the rules to find out how meaningless the rules actually were.

I performed dark magic to get my son back. The Powers would have me believe that by doing so, I committed unspeakable sin. I felt guilty, as soon as I was capable of feeling anything at all. God, I even prayed for my son to be dead and in heaven -- in the Powers' keeping -- instead of continuing to try to save him.

And now Connor's back. He's older, and he's mixed up, and we lost so many years -- but dammit, he's alive, and he's back, and why is that? The dark magic worked. It created a rift, and that rift led to the creation of a path that he followed back to my side. Connor dropped down into the center of the pentagram I painted on the floor. I don't think it's coincidence.

I look out at the ocean again, at that infinite darkness, that unending horizon. For one brief instant, I remember my old faith in the Powers, in the mission. I believed so deeply, and that belief was more beautiful than anything I'd felt in so long.

But I have something even more beautiful now -- Cordelia's love, and maybe, someday, Connor's again. All because I ignored the Powers' "lessons" and started following my own heart. If I'd done that from the beginning, I'd never have lost Connor at all. I'd never have trusted Wesl -- anyone else to take care of him. I'd have kept him safe by my side. If only I'd known it all along --

No. If I'd known it all along, I might never have lost Buffy -- and I'd never have fallen in love with Cordy. And I can't regret that, no matter how much pain it might have caused along the way.

I smile a little in anticipation; Cordelia should be here soon. In just a few minutes, I'll find out if she loves me. And she'll find out just how much I love her.

*****

Still life on highway. Playing in traffic. Deer caught in the headlights.

All these crazy phrases keep floating up in my mind; they're all I have to describe the current situation, and they still fall short. I thought I was prepared for anything -- but not, as it turns out, standing in the middle of an L.A. freeway that's frozen in time, right in front of a Mack truck with the high beams on, staring at a hellguard demon named Skip.

"But Angel -- he'll never know how much I love him," I protest again.

Skip shrugs -- the blades that protrude from his shoulders, like wings, shift as he moves. "I know it's not easy," he says. "If it were easy, everybody would be a champion. But everybody isn't. Not everybody's up to it."

"Angel's a champion," I say. "And he needs me as much as I need him." That sounds kinda arrogant, but it's not. It's the truth! Look what happened when I went away. He lost his son -- not for good, thank God, but for long enough. The damage to their relationship, to Connor's whole life -- no matter how hard they work, they'll never rebuild what they would have had. He lost Wesley, too; I pretend like that doesn't matter, but here and now, when I'm realizing I'll never see Wesley again -- I know it matters a lot. Those are real wounds. Permanent scars. Like Angel needed any more scars.

And why does Angel have them? Because I took off, forgot all about him, forgot all about my mission, and went snorkeling off Catalina Island. He was alone and isolated and without anybody who really understood him, who might have seen what was going on and acted to stop it. Because I was off with Groo.

Groo -- I wince a little as I think of him and our misguided holiday together. Of the way his face looked when he told me goodbye. I didn't love him, and I never would have; I see that, now. But I did care about him, at least enough to feel terrible that he got hurt. In the end, Groo got hurt for the same reason Angel got hurt -- because I ran off to have fun without asking myself if it was right.

"When I made you part-demon," Skip says, "That happened for a purpose, Cordelia. For a mission that was more important than any one man."

The purpose. The mission. I think about that for a long few moments -- at least, what seems like a long time in the center of an earth that's suddenly gone completely still.

What happened when I went away -- was that because I left Angel, or because I left the mission? I don't have an easy answer for that.

I never tried to separate them before.

*****

I set the conch shell on the front seat of the car; I want to save it, to give it to Cordelia. Not exactly the most glamorous gift in the world -- a far cry from the Tiffany boxes she used to dream of -- but it's something physical that I can put into her hands, give her to keep. It's overwhelming, this urge to give something to her. Anything. Some token that could represent just a fraction of what I'm feeling inside. I'd forgotten this impulse: the craving to take something intangible and find a symbol for it. For whatever reason, that makes it more real.

Then again, maybe that's what love does to you. It makes the abstract inadequate, forces you to get real. And it makes you get real about everything, not just the person you care about.

For instance, why did I ever try to pretend that the mission wasn't about people?

I know the answer, even as I ask the question. Because a mission is easy. It's neat and tidy, all wrapped up in light and goodness. It justifies anything, and if you make a mistake -- well, with conflicting scrolls of prophecy and spirit guides that come in weirder forms all the time, you're bound to mess up sometimes.

People -- they demand more of you. If you mess up, it's not some vague question of bad karma, something that you have to pray about, hoping for heavenly answers that never come. It's Connor screaming that his name is Stephen (thank God that's behind us, at least), or Lindsey holding up the plaster that stood in for his hand, or Darla, surrendering the feeble scraps of life and soul she possessed because I wasn't able to protect her from Holtz.

Or it's Cordelia, hands on hips, telling me she knew I couldn't save her.

That lie still hurts; Cordelia didn't trust me to respect her wishes when she was afraid she was dying. The part that hurts the most: Cordy was right. I wouldn't have respected her wishes -- though it would be more true to say, I wouldn't have respected the Powers that did that to her.

She only wanted to help. She only wanted to rescue all those people who were hurting and in danger. And for that, the Powers were willing to kill her. They were willing to take Cordelia and use her up like she was made of paper. Something insubstantial, to be thrown away.

"You think they did this to hurt YOU?" she asked, incredulous that I thought the Powers might hurt her just to get at me. Well, they tried to take my son forever, let him grow up in hell with a man who couldn't have loved him the way I do -- and that was all to teach me a lesson about what it means to lose a son. Manipulative bastards. If they'd ruin Connor's childhood to punish me, then they'd kill Cordelia for no better purpose.

She teased me because I thought the world was out to get me. I don't believe that, not really. But I think the world -- at least the Powers -- isn't out to help me, or anyone connected with me. We have to help ourselves. We have to take care of each other.

When you get right down to it -- isn't that what love means?

*****

"If I leave Angel, then it's the same as ---"

Skip raises an eyebrow, or what passes for an eyebrow on his face. "The same as what?"

I can't answer -- not because I don't know what I was going to say, but because I realize, all at once, that it's not true.

I was going to say, "It's the same as not loving him." But it isn't. Love doesn't mean not caring about anything in the world except one person. Maybe -- maybe it means that you and that one person care about the same things. Even if that means those things are more important than either of you.

Right at this moment -- just when I realize that it's possible I'm about to leave Angel forever -- I realize more than ever before just how much I love him. How badly I want to see him -- oh, God, just once! I imagine him standing at the oceanside cliff, as he must be. Waiting for me. I imagine pulling up, running toward him, not even waiting to see what he says, or for him to ask any of the hundred jillion questions that have to be running through his mind. I want to kiss him, for real, just for once. Is that so much to ask?

Looks like it.

All my life -- and right now I realize that I have no idea how long that will be, days or millennia -- I am going to love Angel. As a man, as a friend, or just as the one who brought me to this place. Where I could stand back from my personal concerns and finally put my stupid, childish teenage self behind me forever. I'm going to love him forever, no matter what -- even if we never see each other again.

Once I would have thought that was impossible -- loving someone without ever seeing them, or being near them. But I learned different, these last couple of weeks. Angel thought he'd never see Connor again, but if anything, he just loved his son more. I'll never forget what it felt like, hearing Angel say that he hoped his son was dead. He could give his son up to heaven, knowing that heaven was real. And if I could tell him about this -- ask him what he would do -- I bet he'd give me up to heaven too.

Heaven is love made real. Joy that rises new each moment. Angel would want that for me. And I know now that I want it for myself. And that it's worth sacrificing for.

Even sacrificing Angel.

*****

Connor. I thought it was impossible for me to feel more jubilant than I already do, but thinking of him makes me grin. I laugh out loud, hear my voice echoing among the beach grasses, above the roar of the ocean.

My son has come back. My son is home.

I know what we've lost; I don't ever expect the loss of those years to stop hurting. But as real and as omnipresent as that shadow is, right now it's eclipsed by the pure light of his return, of his willingness to live with me, let me be his father again. I'll find a way to make the lost time up to him. It might not ever be the same but -- it could still be good, I think.

And I can't forget what a miracle it was that he came to be in the first place. I remember reeling in shock when I first found out about him. What would he be? Man or monster. Child or chaos?

It was Cordelia who sat by my side, listened to my fears, told me it would all be all right. And she was telling the truth. I remember her as she was then -- tired and frightened but still standing by me -- and it doubles my need to see her, kiss her, hold her close.

She carried such terrible burdens for me then, weights I knew and did not know. She was willing to kill Connor for me if it had to be done. She was willing to die for me if the visions could come from no other source.

But now Connor's been shown to be good -- stronger and better than human, not lower, not worse. As much as it hurts, I have to give credit where credit's due: Holtz raised him well. We don't have to be frightened of him anymore. I don't even have to be frightened for him; he's so smart, so able, so damn strong.

And the Powers, in one of their rare merciful moments, seem to have given Cordelia abilities that don't hurt her, but make her even stronger. She's something I don't even understand now, but something that's beautiful. Something she was meant to be.

The Powers -- they bless us and they blame us, hurt us and save us, but I was fooling myself to think that the difference was ever anything besides random. Chance serves us as well as choice, as it turns out; defiance does as much good as obedience. I can only listen to my own counsel. Obey my own judgment. We must be meant to trust ourselves, at least; after all, whom else could we possibly trust?

Those we love, of course. But I don't have any fears that they'll lead me wrong.

I lift my head and breathe in the salty air once more. This time, I catch a whiff of something familiar -- someone familiar --

But it isn't Cordelia. It's Connor. I feel myself begin to smile.

What is he doing here?

*****

"You've already decided," Skip says, and he's telling the truth.

This is important. This is my mission. Mine, not ours -- it's weird to think that, but it must be true. Mine alone.

Alone. Without Angel. Oh, God.

I'm not hurting for myself; I'm going to heaven, and from what Angel's told me, there's nothing for me to fear there. Only joy. Only love -- and even greater than what I feel for Angel, as unimaginable as that seems right now.

Still. I can't stop thinking about him; he's standing near the ocean, and he's waiting for me. He at least guesses that I was coming to tell him I love him, and he's waiting there, maybe to tell me that he loves me too. And the thought of him there, waiting and waiting until he finally gives up -- it breaks my heart. How can I do this to him? How can I let him be hurt? What kind of uncaring person am I?

I tell myself that he has Connor back now. And there's Fred and Gunn -- and maybe, just maybe, with Connor at home safe and sound, Angel will find it in him to forgive Wesley someday. And maybe Wesley will feel the same. Even Lorne won't be in Vegas forever. Angel won't be alone.

But none of them know him like I do, none of them love him like I do --

Then I remember something Angel told me once -- right when he got back from Sri Lanka, when Buffy was still dead. Guilt is a cop-out. It's the easy way of dealing with something. It lets you think about yourself, not about the other person.

And I want to think about Angel. If I can never be with him in reality, that just makes it even more important that we're together in spirit. That I carry him with me always, not in regret or in sadness, but in joy. In love.

So I think about Angel, let my love for him fill me up, illuminate me from within. And because I'm thinking of him, I'm smiling as I float upwards, into heaven, into light.

*****

END

End of The Prism Series

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